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Des Moines School Board Adopts Conflicting Metrics But Will Move Forward To Reopen

Des Moines Public Schools is under pressure to bring students back to school to comply with state guidelines and support underserved students.
Michael Leland
IPR file
Des Moines Public Schools is under pressure to bring students back to school to comply with state guidelines and support underserved students.

Des Moines Public Schools will forge ahead with a phased-in reopening of school buildings starting Oct 12, even after the school board adopted metrics that disagree on whether that is a safe idea.

Des Moines Public Schools will move ahead, for now, to start reopening for in-person classes this month even after the school board voted Wednesday night to approve coronavirus metrics that give a mixed message on whether it’s safe to return.

Going forward with the plan to switch from virtual to hybrid learning keeps the district on track to eventually meet Gov. Kim Reynolds' Return-to-Learn rules requiring at least 50 percent in-person instruction.

The Des Moines School Board adopted four key metrics to guide district-wide decisions as the coronavirus pandemic persists. The numbers recommend switching to virtual learning when:

  • The 14-day positivity rate for COVID-19 tests in Polk County is over 10 percent
  • Polk County sees more than 100 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in the previous seven days
  • The absence rate for students is more than 10 percent higher than normal
  • The absence rate for teachers is over 10 percent, or between 5-9 percent for an extended time

The Iowa Department of Education’s criteria for all-virtual learning include a 15 percent positivity rate over two-weeks in the county as well as 10 percent student absenteeism due to illness with COVID-19.

The positivity rate for Polk County is currently 6.4 percent, which falls within the range that allows hybrid learning under both the state’s and the district’s guidelines. However, the county also saw 117 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people last week, suggesting it may not be safe to return to school, according to the DMPS metrics.

Board member Rob Barron said despite the conflicting numbers, the district should stick with its plans to reopen.

“We’re not reaching everybody right now, and that’s not an indictment on anybody within this district that’s just the truth about trying to educate virtually and we need to be responsive to the people that want to have the option to put their kids back in a building," Barron said.

Kalyn Cody was the only board member who voted against the plan. He said in-person classes should wait until the metrics agree.

“Saying we’re going to compromise and open up anyway is foolish,” Cody said. “We need to wait at least another week to see what happens, if not two, to see if there’s a trend, not an anomaly.”

The school board will continue monitoring coronavirus numbers in Polk County and could change the reopening schedule if there is a surge in cases in the coming weeks.

But the district is also under immense pressure to reopen as scheduled. Because DMPS started the year virtually without approval from the Iowa Department of Education, none of the school days have officially counted toward the state’s required instructional time.

Department director Ann Lebo said Tuesday that the district is now under citation, kicking off what could be a lengthy negotiation involving the district, the Department of Education, and potentially the Iowa State Board of Education to address DMPS’ noncompliance on in-person learning.

Warnings From Public Health Experts

The Des Moines School Board also heard advice from public health experts Wednesday about how to choose when to reopen schools, and some of them warned that reopening to students under current conditions has the potential to drive up community transmission of COVID-19.

DMPS has said it will not be able to ensure physical distancing in all classrooms if it reopens according to state guidelines. Dr. Megan Srinivas, an infectious disease physician in Fort Dodge, said that puts the district at risk of creating a surge in new cases.

“Just with the density and with the facilities available in Polk County it doesn’t seem like adequate mitigation strategies would be possible to really make this as safe a transition as we would want,” Srinivas said.

DMPS has a higher proportion of students of color and students living in poverty compared to surrounding districts in the Des Moines area. Dr. Megan Schaeffer, an epidemiologist who contracts with the Polk County Health Department track COVID-19 trends, said those students are more vulnerable to severe complications from the virus.

One-hundred twenty-one kids have died since the start of the pandemic, 78 percent of those were racial and ethnic minorities and 38 percent of those children did not have access to medical care,” Schaeffer said. “Those are situations I don’t think that we want to get into.”

Polk County Health Department Director Helen Eddy said meals and mental health services from school are also vital for students, but it’s up to the board to weigh the health risks. She said the best chance to prevent a surge in cases coming out of the district is to focus on hygiene, distancing, masking and keeping anyone who is sick out of school.

“So far with schools where we have had issues have been in staff not staying home when they’re ill and to a lesser degree children not staying home when they’re ill,” Eddy said.

Supt. Thomas Ahart said masks will be required, especially in high school classes which are the most likely to fall short of distancing guidelines.

“We don’t have much experience with that yet, but it’s very evident that masking is perhaps the single biggest mitigation tool that we have, so it’s important that we consistently implement that,” Ahart said.

DMPS has asked families to choose by October 4 whether they plan to attend virtually or in-person when schools reopen. So far, 38 percent of families in Des Moines schools have chosen to stay online.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa